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Party powers Republican in Railroad Commission race

By Kenric Ward

Watchdog.org

Endorsements from the four biggest daily newspapers in Texas weren’t nearly enough to carry Libertarian Party candidate Mark Miller in the race for state Railroad Commission.

Swamped by a red tide of voters — many of them punching a straight Republican ticket — Miller was widely viewed as the most qualified choice for the commission, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with railroads and everything to do with regulating the state’s oil industry.

Republican Wayne Christian, a former lawmaker with no industry experience but with considerable oil-industry contributions, won the open commission seat with 53.11 percent of vote.

Miller polled just 5.27 percent after waging a spirited campaign and raising $100,000, mainly from small donors and the technology sector.

Democrat Grady Yarbrough finished second with 38.36 percent, without raising any funds or even campaigning. The “D” next to his name yielded about the same percentage of support as Hillary Clinton garnered in the Lone Star State.

Noting that the Railroad Commission acts as both regulator and promoter of Texas’ biggest industry, Miller blasted current and former commissioners on the three-member panel as “beholden” to Big Oil.

Running unsuccessfully in 2014, Miller was one of the few candidates to talk about surface property rights of Texans.

“We all have rights – not just oil companies,” he told Watchdog.org in an interview.

Miller’s populist brand of libertarianism – balancing free enterprise and environmental concerns – earned endorsements from the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and San Antonio Express-News.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times called Miller — a former petroleum engineer and University of Texas faculty member  “the only qualified candidate for Railroad Commission this year.”

Such praise didn’t dent Christian’s campaign machine, which benefited from a strong Republican turnout, an essentially issue-free race and a $300,000 war chest — $190,000 of which came from oil and gas interests.

“The Railroad Commission is pay-to-play politics at its worst in Texas,” said Tom Smith, director of the nonprofit group Public Citizen, which monitors campaign finance and energy policy.

“Christian’s fundraising continues a long tradition of the oil and gas industry pouring money into the campaigns of officials who would regulate it, renewing questions among environmental and watchdog groups of whether the commission protects the public interest or that of industry,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

Miller said it was “discouraging that voters couldn’t look past the ‘R’ or the “D’ on the ballot.”

But, in a silver lining for Libertarians, Miller’s 5.27 percent share of the vote guaranteed the party ballot access in the next election.

Without hitting 5 percent – a threshold that six LP judicial hopefuls failed to clear – the party would have to gather petitions to put state and local candidates on the ballot in 2018.

“That [automatic ballot access] probably saves us something like $300,000 in petition costs,” Miller estimated.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at kward@watchdog.org. Follow on Twitter @Kenricward.